Mansfield Park seems to be the Jane Austen novel that people don’t like much, and its heroine, Fanny Price, the heroine people don’t care much about (if they don’t actively dislike her). I have never considered it a favorite (that would be Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion), but I also remember that I did like it (and Fanny Price) when I read it. But that was almost 20 years ago. Maybe I feel differently now. I remember so little about the book that I knew I’d need a reread to know for sure, so when Jenny decided to have a Mansfield Park readalong this May, I decided to join in.
And I still liked it. And I liked Fanny.
A lot of people talk about how Fanny is so meek and such a doormat and also kind of a prig. While the latter might be true, she’s really not a doormat. She doesn’t speak up for herself when her aunt, Mrs. Norris, or her cousins, Maria and Julia Bertram, treat her badly, but given that she’s a poor relation who’s been put down by these people since she was a child, I’d hardly expect her to. What’s fascinating is that when it comes to violating her principles, she does speak up. And, ok, one of her principles is that it’s very very wrong to put on a play, but it is her belief, and she stands by it. (And it’s a belief shared by two of the only people in her daily life who treat her kindly, so, again, I can’t be too mad at her about it.) She also stands up for herself when it comes to the choice of who to marry, even when everyone seems sure that she’s wrong to turn down a man above her station. Is she wrong? That’s unclear. But what is clear is that her reasons make sense.
The thing about Mansfield Park is that the human emotions and motivations depicted in it are so often murky. When Edmund decides to go against his principles and perform in the play, he comes up with some sound logic about avoiding scandal by keeping it in the family, but he surely feels some pleasure, even if unconscious, at the idea of performing opposite Mary Crawford. And I think Mary herself is genuinely torn about Edmund a lot of the time. She’s not leading him on if she’s unsure, if she likes him but feels unsuited to being a clergyman’s wife. She’s trying to make up her mind! And maybe money is part of her concern, but given how she’s been pulled from one place to another, I can hardly blame her for wanting a life that feels secure, and money means security.
The Crawfords are, I think, two of Austen’s more complicated characters because their motivations are so murky, even to themselves. Henry falls in love in spite of himself and seems genuinely to be making a go at being a better man as a result. But there’s plenty of reason to think such a reform won’t last. In the end, it’s not clear whether his true nature has come through or if he just despaired of happiness and gave up trying. Perhaps there’s a little of both involved.
And that ambiguity may be what makes this a more difficult Austen novel to love. I know I see Austen books (and films, if I’m being honest) as comfort reads. Books full of drama and comedy that arises from ordinary human foibles but where everything turns out ok in the end. The bones of Mansfield Park feel exactly like that, except that that the ending is not entirely sunny, despite what looks to be a happy ending for everyone who “matters.”
I have no idea how Austen herself really felt about the Crawfords. Perhaps she saw their flirtations and changeability as genuinely scandalous. But they both show real kindness at times, and so I have a hard time writing them off as deserving of ejection from society. And so I’m left a little sad at the close of the book. But I’m also left with a little more to chew on than in some of Austen’s other books, and that is its own kind of pleasure.